We asked fitness experts give the lowdown on whether even small amounts of alcohol can affect your sporting and exercise efforts.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a casual exerciser, are in the gym every day, or compete in regular matches or events, anyone who cares about playing sport or keeping fit needs to understand the effects alcohol can have on their performance. Not having a balanced approach to alcohol could be what gets in the way of you reaping the rewards from all the work you've put in.
Figures from Sport England show that more people are taking part in sport than they used to. During the year to March 2015, 15.5 million people aged 16 years and over in England played sport at least once a week. That’s an increase of more than 1.4 million since 2005/6 – the first year of the survey1. So we’re getting more active but is this move to a healthier lifestyle counteracted by our alcohol consumption?
Overall, alcohol is detrimental to sports performance because of how it affects the body during exercise. It does this in two main ways.
Firstly, because alcohol is a diuretic, drinking too much can lead to dehydration because the alcohol makes your kidney produce more urine. Exercising soon after drinking alcohol can make this dehydration worse because you sweat as your body temperature rises. Combined, sweating and the diuretic effect of exercise make dehydration much more likely. You need to be hydrated when you exercise to maintain the flow of blood through your body, which is essential for circulating oxygen and nutrients to your muscles.
“Dehydration leads to reduced performance," says Professor Greg Whyte, an expert in sports performance. “Hydration also helps control your body temperature so you’re more likely to overheat if you’ve been drinking alcohol.”
Secondly, alcohol interferes with the way your body makes energy. When you’re metabolising, or breaking down alcohol, the liver can’t produce as much glucose, which means you have low levels of blood sugar. Exercise requires high levels of sugar to give you energy. If your liver isn’t producing enough glucose, your performance will be adversely affected. “If your body is forced to run from your supplies of fat rather than blood sugar, you will be slower and have less energy and won’t be able to exercise as intensely,” says Professor Whyte. As a result, your coordination, dexterity, concentration and reactions could be adversely affected too.
Both of these effects are immediate which is why it’s not advised to exercise or compete in sport soon after drinking alcohol.
Drinking alcohol the night before could have a negative influence on your performance the following day. Sports dietitian Jane Griffin says: “It’s not possible to perform at your best if you’re feeling any of the effects normally associated with a hangover such as dehydration, a headache and hypersensitivity to outside stimuli, such as light and sound.”
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Even if you’re not experiencing the symptoms of a hangover, elite sports nutritionist Matt Lovall adds that “exercising the day after drinking alcohol can mean you have an all-round lower quality training session or sporting activity."
You’ll lack strength and power, be less likely to make split second decisions and more likely to feel tired quicker because your body won’t be able to clear out the lactic acid you produce when you exercise. “This is because your liver will be working harder to get rid of the toxic by-products of alcohol in your system,” explains Lovall.
For all of these reasons, experts suggest avoiding alcohol the night before exercise whether you’re due to go for a heavy session at the gym or compete in a team game. However, if you do decide to drink, both Lovall and Griffin advise sticking to just one drink with food.
“I would say with whether you have a drink the day before a training session or workout – you make the choice. But definitely think twice before drinking the day before a competition or match,” says Griffin.
Similarly, drinking after exercise is not advisable if you haven’t consumed enough water to replace the fluids you lost. Professor Whyte recommends sticking to the government's low risk alcohol unit guidelines and alternating with soft drinks. He warns that having a greater amount than this after exercise is more likely to make you crave stodgy high in calorie foods – which could affect your sports performance later down the line if you put on weight as a result. Drinking too much and eating calorific food will cancel out the health gains of the exercise your body would have benefited from.
Indeed, alcohol is high in sugar which means alcohol contains lots of calories – seven calories a gram in fact, almost as many as pure fat. “If your aim in the gym or through exercise is weight management, then it seems paradoxical to consume ‘empty’ calories in liquid form,” says Professor Whyte. Alcohol can also slow down the amount of calories you’re able to burn through exercise. Because your body isn’t designed to store alcohol, it tries to expel it as quickly as possible. This gets in the way of other processes, including absorbing nutrients in food and burning fat.
Muscle gain can be affected too. Alcohol can disrupt sleep patterns and growth hormones, vital for muscle growth, are released while you're in deep sleep. It could also reduce the amount of testosterone – a hormone you need to gain muscles – that you have in your blood. “And drinking alcohol to excess can poison muscle fibres which means they don’t adapt like they should do for up to three days,” says Lovall.
Most worryingly, drinking can increase the potential for unusual heart rhythms. This is a risk which significantly increases during exercise up to two days after heavy alcohol consumption. “How much you need to drink to be at risk depends on the individual, but the risk increases if you are an irregular drinker,” says Professor Whyte. It’s because the activity itself already increases your heart rate and with a lot of alcohol in your system, you put extra stress on the organ. Other long-term impacts of alcohol such as heart disease, cancer and liver disease, could stop you taking part in exercise and sport altogether.
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Sports performance is also impaired when you drink after you’ve had an injury. You’ll be out of action for longer because the recovery process slows down. “It’s difficult to quantify how much you have to drink but we know that alcohol causes the blood vessels to the skin, arms and legs to open up,” explains Griffin. “The increased blood supply makes an injury bleed and swell even more.”
If you regularly drink above the government’s low risk unit guidelines your body starts to build up a tolerance to alcohol. This is one of the main reasons why many medical experts recommend taking regular days off from drinking or spreading your intake out evenly over the week. If you are drinking above the guidelines, see what positive results you notice when you reduce your drinking – better sports performance is likely to be one of them.
Keep track of how many calories you are consuming in your favourite drinks using our free smartphone app which includes a Unit and Calorie Calculator.
(1) Sport England website. ‘Who plays sport?’ Sport England research, accessed 30/11/15. Available at: http://www.sportengland.org/research/who-plays-sport/